AS my horrified gaze took in these monstrosities I turned with a shudder to Jim Carpenter.
“Am I crazy, Jim,” I asked, “or do you see these things too?”
“I see them all right, Pete,” he replied. “It isn’t as surprising as it seems at first glance. You expected to find human beings; so did I, but what reason had we for doing so? It is highly improbable, when you come to consider the matter, that evolution should take the same course elsewhere as it did on earth. Why not beetles, or fish, or horned toads, for that matter?”
“No reason, I guess,” I answered; “I just hadn’t expected anything of the sort. What do you suppose they mean to do with us?”
“I haven’t any idea, old man. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll try to talk to them, although I don’t expect much luck at it.”
He turned to the nearest beetle and slowly and clearly spoke a few words. The insect gave no signs of comprehension, although it watched the movement of Jim’s lips carefully. It is my opinion, and Jim agrees with me, that the insects were both deaf and dumb, for during the entire time we were associated with them, we never heard them give forth a sound under any circumstances, nor saw them react to any sound that we made. Either they had some telepathic means of communication or else they made and heard sounds beyond the range of the human ear, for it was evident from their actions that they frequently communicated with one another.
WHEN Jim failed in his first attempt to communicate he looked around for another method. He noticed my notebook, which had fallen on the floor when I was set down; he picked it up and drew a pencil from his pocket. The insects watched his movements carefully, and when he had made a sketch in the book, the nearest one took it from him and examined it carefully and then passed it to another one, who also examined it. The sketch which Jim had drawn showed the outline of the Hadley space flyer from which he had been taken. When the beetles had examined the sketch, one of them stepped to an instrument board in the center of the ship and made an adjustment. Then he pointed with one of his lower arms.
We looked in the direction in which he pointed; to our astonishment, the walls of the flyer seemed to dissolve, or at least to become perfectly transparent. The floor of the space ship was composed of some silvery metal, and from it had risen walls of the same material, but now the effect was as though we were suspended in mid-air, with nothing either around us or under us. I gasped and grabbed at the instrument board for support. Then I felt foolish as I realized that there was no change in the feel of the floor for all its transparency and that we were not falling.
A SHORT distance away we could see our flyer suspended in the air, held up by two long flexible rods or wires similar to those which had lifted us from our ship into our prison. I saw a dozen more of these rods coiled up, hanging in the air, evidently, but really on the floor near the edge of the flyer, ready for use. Jim suddenly grasped me by the arm.
“Look behind you in a moment,” he said, “but don’t start!”
He took the notebook in his hand and started to draw a sketch. I looked behind as he had told me to. Hanging in the air in a position which told me that they must have been in a different compartment of the flyer, were five children. They were white as marble, and lay perfectly motionless.
“Are they dead, Jim?” I asked in a low voice without looking at him.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but we’ll find out a little later. I am relieved to find them here, and I doubt if they are harmed.”
The sketch which he was making was one of the solar system, and, when he had finished, he marked the earth with a cross and handed the notebook to one of the beetles. The insect took it and showed it to his companions; so far as I was able to judge expressions, they were amazed to find that we had knowledge of the heavenly bodies. The beetle took Jim’s pencil in one of its hands and, after examining it carefully, made a cross on the circle which Jim had drawn to represent the planet Mercury.
THEY come from Mercury,” exclaimed Jim in surprise as he showed me the sketch. “That accounts for a good many things; why they are so lethargic, for one thing. Mercury is much smaller than the earth and the gravity is much less. According to Mercurian standards, they must weigh a ton each. It is quite a tribute to their muscular development that they can move and support their weight against our gravity. They can understand a drawing all right, so we have a means of communicating with them, although a pretty slow one and dependent entirely on my limited skill as a cartoonist. I wonder if we are free to move about?”
“The only way to find out is to try,” I replied and stood erect. The beetles offered no objection and Jim stood up beside me. We walked, or rather edged, our way toward the side of the ship. The insects watched us when we started to move and then evidently decided that we were harmless. They turned from us to the working of the ship. One of them manipulated some dials on the instrument board. One of the rods which held our flyer released its grip, came in toward the Mercurian ship and coiled itself up on the floor, or the place where the floor should have been. The insect touched another dial. Jim threw caution to the winds, raced across the floor and grasped the beetle by the arm.
The insect looked at him questioningly; Jim produced the notebook and drew a sketch representing our flyer falling. On the level be had used to represent the ground he made another sketch of it lying in ruins. The beetle nodded comprehendingly and turned to another dial; the ship sank slowly toward the ground.
WE sank until we hung only a few feet from the ground when our flyer was gently lowered down. When it rested on the ground, the wire which had held it uncoiled, came aboard and coiled itself up beside the others. As the Mercurian ship rose I noticed idly that the door which had been torn from our ship and dropped lay within a few yards of the ship itself. The Mercurian ship rose to an elevation of a hundred feet, drifting gently over the city.
As we rose I determined to try the effect of my personality on the beetles. I approached the one who seemed to be the leader and, putting on the most woeful expression I could muster, I looked at the floor. He did not understand me and I pretended that I was falling and grasped at him. This time he nodded and stepped to the instrument board. In a moment the floor became visible. I thanked him as best I could in pantomime and approached the walls. They were so transparent that I felt an involuntary shrinking as I approached them. I edged my way cautiously forward until my outstretched hand encountered a solid substance. I looked out.
At the slow speed we were traveling the drone of our motors was hardly audible to us, and I felt sure that it could not be heard on the ground. Once their curiosity was satisfied, our captors paid little or no attention to me and left me free to come and go as I wished. I made my way cautiously toward the children, but ran into a solid wall. Remembering Jim’s words, I made my way back toward him without displaying any interest.
JIM could probably have wandered around as I did had he wished, but he chose to occupy his time differently. With his notebook and pencil he carried on an extensive conversation, if that term can be applied to a crudely executed set of drawings, with the leader of the beetles. I was not especially familiar with the methods of control of space ships and I could make nothing of the maze of dials and switches on the instrument board.
For half an hour we drifted slowly along. Presently one of the beetles approached, seized my arm and turned me about. With one of his arms he pointed ahead. A mile away I could see another space flyer similar to the one we were on.
“Here comes another one, Jim.” I called.
“Yes, I saw it some time ago. I don’t know where the third one is.”
“Are there three of them?”
“Yes. Three of them came here yesterday and are exploring the country round about here. They are scouts sent out from the fleet of our brother planet to see if the road was clear and what the world was like. They spotted the hole through the layer with their telescope and sent their fleet out to pay us a visit. He tells me that the scouts have reported favorably and that the whole fleet, several thousand ships, as near as I can make out, are expected here this evening.”
“Have you solved the secret of their invisibility?”
PARTLY. It is as I expected. The walls of the ship are double, the inner one of metal and the outer one of vitrolene or some similar perfectly transparent substance. The space between the walls is filled with some substance which will bend both visible and ultra-violet rays along a path around the ship and then lets them go in their original direction. The reason why we can see through the walls and see the protective coating of that ship coming is that they are generating some sort of a ray here which acts as a carrier for the visible light rays. I don’t know what sort of a ray it is, but when I get a good look at their generators, I may be able to tell. Are you beginning to itch and burn?”
“Yes, I believe that I am, although I hadn’t noticed it until you spoke.”
“I have been noticing it for some time. From its effects on the skin, I am inclined to believe it to be a ray of very short wave-length, possibly something like our X-ray, or even shorter.”
“Have you found out what they intend to do with us?”
“I don’t think they have decided yet. Possibly they are going to take us up to the leader of their fleet and let him decide. The cuss that is in command of this ship seems surprised to death to find out that I can comprehend the principles of his ship. He seems to think that I am a sort of a rara avis, a freak of nature. He intimated that he would recommend that we be used for vivisection.”
“It’s not much more worse than the fate they design for the rest of their captives, at that.”
“What is that?”
“It’s a long story that I’ll have to tell you later. I want to watch this meeting.”
THE other ship had approached to within a few yards and floated stationary, while some sort of communication was exchanged between the two. I could not fathom the method used, but the commander of our craft clamped what looked like a pair of headphones against his body and plugged the end of a wire leading from them into his instrument board. From time to time various colored lights glowed on the board before him. After a time he uncoupled his device from the board, and one of the long rods shot out from our ship to the other. It returned in a moment clamped around the body of a young girl. As the came on board, she was lowered onto the deck beside the other children. Like them, she was stiff and motionless. I gave an exclamation and sprang forward.
Jim’s voice recalled me to myself, and I watched the child laid with the others with as disinterested an expression as I could muster. I had never made a mistake in following Jim Carpenter’s lead and I knew that somewhere in his head a plan was maturing which might offer us some chance of escape.
Our ship moved ahead down a long slant, gradually dropping nearer to the ground. I watched the maneuver with interest while Jim, with his friend the beetle commander, went over the ship. The insect was evidently amused at Jim and was determined to find out the limits of his intelligence, for he pointed out various controls and motors of the ship and made elaborate sketches which Jim seemed to comprehend fairly well.
ONE of the beetles approached the control board and motioned me back. I stepped away from the board; evidently a port in the side of the vessel opened, for I felt a breath of air and could hear the hum of the city. I walked to the side and glanced down, and found that we were floating about twenty feet off the ground over a street on the edge of the city. On the street a short distance ahead of us two children, evidently returning from school, to judge by the books under their arms, were walking unsuspectingly along. A turn of the dial sped up our motors, and as the hum rang out in a louder key the children looked upward. Two of the long flexible wires shot out and wrapped themselves about the children; screaming, they were lifted into the space flyer. The port through which they came in shut with a clang and the ship rose rapidly into the air. The children were released from the wires which coiled themselves up on deck and the beetle who had operated them stepped forward and grasped the nearer of the children, a boy of about eleven, by the arm. He raised the boy, who was paralyzed with terror, up toward his head and gazed steadily into his eyes. Slowly the boy ceased struggling and became white and rigid. The beetle laid him on the deck and turned to the girl. Involuntarily I gave a shout and sprang forward, but Jim grasped me by the arm.
“Keep quiet, you darned fool!” he cried. “We can do nothing now. Wait for a chance!”
“We can’t stand here and see murder done!” I protested.
“It’s not murder. Pete, those children aren’t being hurt. They are being hypnotized so that they can be transported to Mercury.”
“Why are they taking them to Mercury?” I demanded.
“As nearly as I can make out, there is a race of men up there who are subject to these beetles. This ship is radium propelled, and the men and women are the slaves who work in the radium mines. Of course the workers soon become sexless, but others are kept for breeding purposes to keep the race alive. Through generations of in-breeding, the stock is about played out and are getting too weak to be of much value.
“The Mercurians have been studying the whole universe to find a race which will serve their purpose and they have chosen us to be the victims. When their fleet gets here, they plan to capture thousands of selected children and carry them to Mercury in order to infuse their blood into the decadent race of slaves they have. Those who are not suitable for breeding when they grow up will die as slaves in the radium mines.”
HORRIBLE!” I gasped. “Why are they taking children, Jim? Wouldn’t adults suit their purpose better?”
“They are afraid to take adults. On Mercury an earthman would have muscles of unheard of power and adults would constantly strive to rise against their masters. By getting children, they hope to raise them to know nothing else than a life of slavery and get the advantage of their strength without risk. It is a clever scheme.”
“And are we to stand here and let them do it?”
“Not on your life, but we had better hold easy for a while. If I can get a few minutes more with that brute I’ll know enough about running this ship that we can afford to do away with them. You have a pistol, haven’t you?”
“The devil! I thought you had. I have an automatic, but it only carries eight shells. There are eleven of these insects and unless we can get the jump on them, they’ll do us. I saw what looks like a knife lying near the instrument board; get over near it and get ready to grab it as soon as you hear my pistol. These things are deaf and if I work it right I may be able to do several of them in before they know what’s happening. When you attack, don’t try to ram them in the back; their backplates are an inch thick and will be proof against a knife thrust. Aim at their eyes; if you can blind them, they’ll be helpless. Do you understand?”
“I’ll do my best, Jim,” I replied. “Since you have told me their plans I am itching to get at them.”
I EDGED over toward the knife, but as I did so I saw a better weapon. On the floor lay a bar of silvery metal about thirty inches long and an inch in diameter. I picked it up and toyed with it idly, meanwhile edging around to get behind the insect which I had marked for my first attentions. Jim was talking again by means of the notebook with his beetle friend. They walked around the ship, examining everything in it.
“Are you ready, Pete?” came Jim’s voice at last.
“All set,” I replied, getting a firmer grasp on my bar and edging toward one of the insects.
“Well, don’t start until I fire. You notice the bug I am talking to? Don’t kill him unless you have to. This ship is a little too complicated for me to fathom, so I want this fellow taken prisoner. We’ll use him as our engineer when we take control.”
“All right, get ready.”
I kept my eye on Jim. He had drawn the beetle with whom he was talking to a position where they were behind the rest. Jim pointed at something behind the insect’s back and the beetle turned. As it did so, Jim whipped out his pistol and, taking careful aim, fired at one of the insects.
As the sound of the shot rang out I raised my bar and leaped forward. I brought it down with crushing force on the head of the nearest beetle. My victim fell forward, and I heard Jim’s pistol bark again; but I had no time to watch him. As the beetle I struck fell the others turned and I had two of them coming at me with outstretched arms, ready to grasp me. I swung my bar, and the arm of one of them fell limp; but the other seized me with both its hands, and I felt the cruel hooks of its lower arms against the small of my back.
ONE of my arms was still free; I swung my bar again, and it struck my captor on the back of the head. It was stunned by the blow and fell. I seized the knife from the floor, and threw myself down beside it and struck at its eyes, trying to roll it over so as to protect me from the other who was trying to grasp me.
I felt hands clutch me from behind; I was wrenched loose from the body of my victim and lifted into the air. I was turned about and stared hard into the implacable crystalline eyes of one of the insects. For a moment my senses reeled and then, without volition, I dropped my bar. I remembered the children and realized that I was being hypnotized. I fought against the feeling, but my senses reeled and I almost went limp, when the sound of a pistol shot, almost in my ear, roused me. The spell of the beetle was momentarily broken. I thrust the knife which I still grasped at the eyes before me. My blow went home, but the insect raised me and bent me toward him until my head lay on top of his and the huge horns which adorned his head began to close. Another pistol shot sounded, and I was suddenly dropped.
I grasped my bar as I fell and leaped up. The flyer was a shambles. Dead insects lay on all sides while Jim, smoking pistol in hand, was staring as though fascinated into the eyes of one of the surviving beetles. I ran forward and brought my bar down on the insect’s head, but as I did so I was grasped from behind.
“Jim, help!” I cried as I was swung into the air. The insect whirled me around and then threw me to the floor. I had an impression of falling; then everything dissolved in a flash of light. I was unconscious only for a moment, and I came to to find Jim Carpenter standing over me, menacing my assailant with his gun.
“Thanks, Jim,” I said faintly.
“If you’re conscious again, get up and get your bar,” he replied. “My pistol is empty and I don’t know how long I can run a bluff on this fellow.”
I SCRAMBLED to my feet and grasped the bar. Jim stepped behind me and reloaded his pistol.
“All right,” he said when he had finished. “I’ll take charge of this fellow. Go around and see if the rest are dead. If they aren’t when you find them, see that they are when you leave them. We’re taking no prisoners.”
I went the rounds of the prostrate insects. None of them were beyond moving except two whose heads had been crushed by my bar, but I obeyed Jim’s orders. When I rejoined him with my bloody bar, the only beetle left alive was the commander, whom Jim was covering with his pistol.
“Take the gun,” he said when I reported my actions, “and give me the bar.”
We exchanged weapons and Jim turned to the captive.
“Now, old fellow,” he said grimly, “either you run this ship as I want you to, or you’re a dead Indian. Savvy?”
He took his pencil and notebook from his pocket and drew a sketch of our Hadley space ship. On the other end of the sheet he drew a picture of the Mercurian ship, and then drew a line connecting the two. The insect looked at the sketch but made no movement.
“All right, if that’s the way you feel about it,” said Jim. He raised the bar and brought it down with crushing force on one of the insect’s lower arms. The arm fell as though paralyzed and a blue light played across the beetle’s eyes. Jim extended the sketch again and raised the bar threateningly. The beetle moved over to the control board, Jim following closely, and set the ship in motion. Ten minutes later it rested on the ground beside the ship in which we had first taken the air.
FOLLOWING Jim’s pictured orders the beetle opened the door of the Mercurian ship and followed Jim into the Hadley. As we emerged from the Mercurian ship I looked back. It had vanished completely.
“The children, Jim!” I gasped.
“I haven’t forgotten them,” he replied, “but they are all right for the present. If we turned them loose now, we’d have ninety reporters around us in ten minutes. I want to get our generators modified first.”
He pointed toward the spot where the Mercurian ship had stood and then toward our generators. The beetle hesitated, but Jim swung his bar against the insect’s side in a vicious blow. Again came the play of blue light over the eyes; the beetle bent over our generaters and set to work. Jim handed me the bar and bent over to help. They were both mechanics of a high order and they worked well together; in an hour the beetle started the generators and swung one of the searchlights toward his old ship. It leaped into view on the radium coated screen.
“Good business!” ejaculated Jim. “We’ll repair this door; then we’ll be ready to release the children and start out.”
WE followed the beetle into the Mercurian ship, which it seemed to be able to see. It opened a door leading into another compartment of the flyer, and before us lay the bodies of eight children. The beetle lifted the first one, a little girl, up until his many-faceted eyes looked full into the closed ones of the child. There was a flicker of an eyelash, a trace of returning color, and then a scream of terror from the child. The beetle set the girl down and Jim bent over her.
“It’s all right now, little lady,” he said, clumsily smoothing her hair.
“You’re safe now. Run along to your mother. First Mortgage, take charge of her and take her outside. It isn’t well for children to see these things.”
The child clung to my hand: I led her out of the ship, which promptly vanished as we left it. One by one, seven other children joined us, the last one, a miss of not over eight, in Jim’s arms. The beetle followed behind him.
“Do any of you know where you are?” asked Jim as he came out.
“I do, sir,” said one of the boys. “I live close to here.”
“All right, take these youngsters to your house and tell your mother to telephone their parents to come and get them. If anyone asks you what happened, tell them to see Jim Carpenter to-morrow. Do you understand?”
“All right, run along then. Now, First Mortgage, let’s go hunting.”
WE wired our captive up so securely that I felt that there was no possible chance of his escape; then, with Jim at the controls and me at the guns, we fared forth in search of the invaders. Back and forth over the city we flew without sighting another spaceship in the air. Jim gave an exclamation of impatience and swung on a wider circle, which took us out over the water. I kept the searchlights working. Presently, far ahead over the water, a dark spot came into view. I called to Jim and we approached it at top speed.
“Don’t shoot until we are within four hundred yards,” cautioned Jim.
I held my fire until we were within the specified distance. The newcomer was another of the Mercurian space-ships; with a feeling of joy I swung my beam until the cross-hairs of the screen rested full on the invader.
“All ready!” I sung out.
“If you are ready, Gridley, you may fire!” replied Jim. I pressed the gun button. The crash of the gun was followed by another report from outside as the radite shell burst against the Mercurian flyer. The deadly explosive did its work, and the shattered remains of the wreck fell, to be engulfed in the sea below.
“That’s one!” cried Jim. “I’m afraid we won’t have time to hunt up the other right now. This bug told me that the other Mercurians are due here to-day, and I think we had better form ourselves into a reception committee and go up to the hole to meet them.”
HE sent the ship at high speed over the city until we hovered over the laboratory. We stopped for a moment, and Jim stepped to the radio telephone.
“Hello, Williams,” he said, “how are things going? That’s fine. In an hour, you say? Well, speed it up as much as you can; we may call for it soon.”
He turned both stern motors to full power, and we shot up like a rocket toward the hole in the protective layer through which the invaders had entered. In ten minutes we were at the altitude of the guard ships and Jim asked if anything had been seen. The report was negative; Jim left them below the layer and sent our flyer up through the hole into space. We reached the outer surface in another ten minutes and we were none too soon. Hardly had we debouched from the hole than ahead of us we saw another Mercurian flyer. It was a lone one, and Jim bent over the captive and held a hastily made sketch before him. The sketch showed three Mercurian flyers, one on the ground, one wrecked and the third one in the air. He touched the drawing of the one in the air and pointed toward our port hole and looked questioningly at the beetle. The insect inspected the flyer in space and nodded.
“Good!” cried Jim. “That’s the third of the trio who came ahead as scouts. Get your gun ready, First Mortgage: we’re going to pick him off.”
Our ship approached the doomed Mercurian. Again I waited until we were within four hundred yards; then I pressed the button which hurled it, a crumpled wreck, onto the outer surface of the heaviside layer.
“Two!” cried Jim as we backed away.
“Here come plenty more,” I cried as I swung the searchlight. Jim left his controls, glanced at the screen and whistled softly. Dropping toward us from space were hundreds of the Mercurian ships.
“We got here just in time,” he said. “Break out your extra ammunition while I take to the hole. We can’t hope to do that bunch alone, so we’ll fight a rearguard action.”